It happened over Christmas

Christmas has always been a time for families, for gathering together around the fire and enjoying the warmth of human contact. In the halls and round houses of the Celts, in the castles and grand houses of the invading Normans, in the burgeoning villages and towns with their wattle and daub buildings, the Christmas season was always well kept in Wales.

Yet the season has also been a time for great events, momentous happenings, and it needs only a cursory glance to realise that the Welsh did not just retire to their hearths for the Twelve Days of Christmas, warming their hands and toes before their roaring log fires. They also found time to get out and achieve!

The first eisteddfod

The very first eisteddfod, for example, was held over the Christmas period of 1176. Poets, story tellers and musicians came together for several days over the season to compete for two chairs, one for poetry, the other for music. The eisteddfod was held at Cardigan Castle and was organised by Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys as he was known.

Even though the term "eisteddfod" was not used when describing this first event, bardic tournaments had been established and continue until this very day - even though they are now held during the summer months rather than over Christmas.

The Christmas truce

The famous unofficial truce that took place on Christmas Day 1914, with World War One raging across Europe, involved many Welsh soldiers. One of the regiments in the front line on this auspicious and amazing day was the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

The story of the truce has been told many times but none is better or more graphic than the account produced by a private in the regiment, Frank Richards. With the help of poet Robert Graves he wrote a book, Old Soldiers Never Die, and one chapter concerns the Christmas truce. Richards was there, at the front, when the unofficial cease fire began:

"On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with 'A Merry Christmas' on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one... Two of our men threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done [sic] the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench."

Soldiers from both sides spent the day in each others company, out in No Man's Land. Nobody fired or shot at the other side and Frank Richards even recalled that the Germans sent their Welsh enemies two barrels of beer. It was, he recalled, weak and watery, unlike good Welsh ale.

The unofficial truce, which lasted until midnight, was observed along almost the whole of the front line and while senior officers were horrified, Welsh soldiers like Frank Richards were happy to put aside their weapons for the day and to mix with other young men, just like themselves, who were fighting for their country.

Christmas Evans

Several notable Welsh births took place, either on Christmas Day or during the Christmas season. The famous Non-conformist preacher Christmas Evans was born on Christmas Day in 1766 in a village close to Llandysul in Ceredigion. He was the son of a poor shoemaker and grew up illiterate and more than a little savage: he lost an eye in a vicious brawl while still a young man.

Salvation came in the shape of Presbyterian minister David Davies who taught him to read and write in both English and Welsh. The young Christmas became a Baptist minister, his reputation quickly spreading across the whole of Wales. He had amazing insight and imagination and so powerful were the sermons he gave during his preaching tours that he was labelled "the Welsh John Bunyan".

The Gentle Giant

The footballer John Charles was born on the day after Boxing Day 1931. Nicknamed the Gentle Giant, he was never sent off during a professional career that saw him play for clubs such as Leeds, Cardiff and Juventus. Former Cardiff City captain Don Murray played with Charles and has always regarded him as the greatest player he has ever seen:

"He played for Wales on 38 occasions, and took them to the quarter finals of the World Cup. He could play at centre forward or at centre back - at international level. That's a rare and very real ability. I went out to Italy with him, long after he'd left Juventus, and people still remembered him with love and affection. He was simply a great player."

Other notable Welsh births during the Christmas season include actor Anthony Hopkins on New Years Eve 1937 and singer Aled Jones on 29 December 1970.

Nos Galan Races

The Nos Galan Races are now held every New Year's Eve in and around Mountain Ash. The very first races were held on 31 December 1958, the aim being to celebrate the life and career of legendary Welsh runner Guto Nyth Bran. Legend declares that Guto was so fast that he could catch a bird in flight and that he once ran from his home to Pontypridd, a distance of over seven miles, before the kettle boiled!

These days there are races over various distances, the Nos Galan Beacon being lit to signal the start of the various events. The record for the four mile race was set by Tony Simmons in 1971 and, at 17 minutes 41 seconds, it is a time that still stands. The record for the 100 yards sprint is also a long-standing one, being set by Nigel Walker in 1988.

Part of the appeal of the Nos Galan Races is that every year a mystery runner - his or her name kept secret until the night of the races - takes part. Mystery runners in the past have included athletes Lillian Board, Kirsty Wade and David Hemery and rugby stars Jamie Roberts and James Hook.

Tragedy, of course, has also been ever present in the story of Welsh Christmases. On Christmas Day 1806 the Conwy Ferry sank, drowning 13 people, while on Boxing Day 1863 an explosion rocked the Gin Pit in Maesteg, causing the deaths of 14 miners.

On New Years Day 1824, a shipwreck on the Great Orme saw the deaths of 14 passengers and crew while on 1 January 1916, at the height of World War One, the Mumbles lifeboat capsized, drowning three of the crew. Inevitably, there have been many other disasters around Wales over the festive period.

The Christmas season, however, is not the time to think of human misery and pain. Rather, it is a time to celebrate and be happy. And Welsh men and women have done so for many years. They will undoubtedly continue to do so for many more to come.

Phil will be chatting with Roy Noble on Tuesday 27 December from 2pm on BBC Radio Wales about this article.

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